Featuring spiny space ships, comical alien species, and dark cloud interplanetary good vs. evil, Vernor Vinge’s 1992 A Fire Upon the Deep bears all the hallmarks of Golden Age science fiction. But what cements its position within the era is its decidedly comic book touch. At no times does the reader feel convinced of the seriousness of the story, yet on it moves, one loosely sketched scene following the next. Further symptoms include characters which serve only to move the plot, dialogue taken from a low-budget action film, and scenes so half-heartedly detailed that plausibility evaporates. Potential abound, the first book of Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is unfortunately nothing more than b-lit space adventure.
A mathematician by day, writer by night, Vinge’s primary calling in life is plastered across the pages. Plain, workaday words relate action and thought in the most simplistic fashion. There is not a beautiful or touching phrase or scene to be found in the whole book despite the tragedies that befall some of the characters. In scientific fashion, the book does contain a few inventive ideas and the plot is outlined well; the Tine species and the concept of the galaxy being divided into differing zones of intelligence are unique. But like the black and white numbers used to calculate the length of an arc, Vinge’s novel lacks any of the colorful details that flesh out his ideas and make them fully visible to the imagination. Lifeless and listless, the story’s potential hovers continuously beneath the surface, trying to break free of its lackluster prose. More directly stated, a better writer would have unpacked Vinge’s universe word by word, the species and characters brought to life in the reader’s imagination through vivid, lifelike description and delicate wordplay.
And there are further complaints, beginning with some of the dubious circumstances Vinge foists upon readers. Number one is an extremely suspect aspect of Tine society. The Tines a race of sapient canines walking on four paws, it’s difficult to imagine them erecting castles, smelting iron, publishing books, and constructing two-way radios with only their noses and incisors, not an opposable thumb or hand among them. (You want dogs in sailboats, there are dogs in sailboats.) Number two is the lack of foresight with regards to technology. Set literally billions of years in the future, spaceships exist and can travel at nearly the speed of light, however, people are still communicating with flat screen video via network channels maxed out at 10mb/s. Only 20 years have passed since A Fire upon the Deep was published and we’ve already overtaken that rate - not to mention messaging has been made more efficient than Usenet style memos. The list of anachronisms goes on, but I digress.
Given these aspects, subtlety and maturity are not epithets a critic would bestow on this work of pulp fiction. Lines such as: “So you mean the evil lord has been inside our computer all along?“ are par for the A Fire upon the Deep course. This kind of dialogue suggests that Vinge takes the intelligence of his readership lightly. Thus, for those looking for more understated dialogue, a plot sometimes hidden between the lines, and a fineness of detail that portrays insight into the human condition, it’s best to look elsewhere; A Fire upon the Deep reads like the cheap novelization of a comic book.
In the end, A Fire Upon the Deep is for those who enjoy the less-than-serious, adventurous comic book side of the Golden Age of science fiction. With blatantly good vs. the blatantly evil, anthropomorphized aliens, humans saving the day, and an anachronistic mix of technology, it offers much the same as the pulp offerings of sci-fi in the middle of the 20th century. For those who want space adventure that cuts with a more realistic edge and contains real themes, try Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos or Banks’ Culture Series. A Fire upon the Deep is just Disney in space.